Robert Sabga: ‘Apologise to the children’

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

The Robert Sabga Task Force 1997 report on children’s home in TT. Photo by Roger Jacob

APOLOGISE to the children in residential institutions who were the victims of abuse for over 25 years.

All governments from 1997 to the present have failed to adequately implement recommendations that were made in a report 25 years ago to protect children in these facilities from abuse.

These were the words of Robert Sabga, the chairman of a 1997 Cabinet-appointed task force to review the operations of children’s homes and institutions in Trinidad and Tobago.

At a news conference at Piarco Airport on May 22, the Prime Minister called on Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Sabga to stop politicising the report. Dr Rowley also called on them to apologise for doing so.

Speaking with Newsday on Tuesday from Ottawa, where he now lives, Sabga said, “The only people who deserve an apology are the children who have been in these homes for 25 years and more, who have been subject to abuse and neglect from the very people who are supposed to be caregiving and providing the nurturing and the counselling and the safety that they should have enjoyed.”

He added, “I have done nothing here that I feel I have to apologise for.”

Sabga said he does not have a political agenda and never has done. His task force did what was asked of it by the government of the day, he said.

“We did our job under very difficult circumstances.”

The task force submitted its report with the expectation that action would be taken on the recommendations contained in the report.

Sabgasaid the contents of the report are now a matter of record.

“Why isn’t the Prime Minister and his government apologising for not being able to find a report that was hiding in plain sight all along?”

In a statement issued by the Office of the Prime Minister on May 16, Rowley said the Government was unaware of the contents of the Sabga report.

A present-day committee led by retired Justice of Appeal Judith Jones to investigate reports of abuse in children’s homes, he continued, “sought diligently to get access to a Sabga report but even their best effort could not provide them with a copy from any source.”

Rowley was shocked, scandalised and angry at what he read about the report in the media, he said. He called on acting Commissioner of Police McDonald Jacob to find the report and take the necessary action against everyone implicated in it or with its revelations.

Was the report ever laid in Parliament in 1997?

Sabga said, “I can only go by what is in Hansard (Parliament’s record), which has been reported extensively.”

He has never been a parliamentarian.

Sabga was in Canada shortly after handing over the report in 1997 to then social and community development minister Manohar Ramsaran. He said he knew the report was taken to the then Basdeo Panday Cabinet.

“After that, I have no connection to the report.”

Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar served as attorney general and education minister at different times in the life of Panday’s government.

On May 19, Ramsaran confirmed the report went to Cabinet. But he was uncertain whether or not it was laid in Parliament. He told Newsday last week: “The report was laid somewhere.

“I want to be honest with the public. My job was completed when the task force’s work was completed.”

Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, who was attorney general in 1997, also did not recall whether the report was laid in Parliament.

“Based on what I am reading on the newspapers, I believe if such a report was brought to my attention, I would have referred it to the police or to the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions).”

Maharaj said if a report like that contained serious allegations and identified wrongdoing which amounted to criminal offences, that was what should have been done.

He added, “Even if that was not done then, nothing prevents that from being done now. There is no time limit to prevent a criminal prosecution like that from commencing.”

Once evidence is available from victims or potential victims, he continued, “With proper police investigation, persons can be brought to justice.”

Sabga does not understand why some people have accused him of horrendous things such as hiding or sanitising the report. He reiterated there are references to the report in Hansard.

Newsday made checks with Parliament last week, and the response was that there had been no reference to the report on any order paper since 1997. But a Hansard copy of a Finance Committee report on June 2, 2006 had Ramsaran speaking about it, while he was an opposition MP.

He said then, “When that committee visited homes, they found children being abused and the managers of these homes tried everything to prevent the committee from going into these buildings.”

Sabga said this confirms an old Chinese saying:”The faintest of ink is always better than the strongest of memories.”

Did all governments from 1997 to now fail to adequately implement the recommendations in the report?

Sabga said, “If you are asking me did successive governments fail to adequately implement the recommendations that we made in our report, the easy answer is yes.”

Those administrations include the UNC (1995-2001), PNM (2001-2002), PNM (2002-2007), PNM (2007-2010), UNC-led People’s Partnership (PP) coalition (May 2010-September 2015) and PNM (September 2015-present).

“There will always be things that should have been done and could have been done that were never done.” Sabga said. He did not know the reasons for the latter.

Some of the recommendations included licensing and inspecting children’s homes and a child witness protection programme for children who are unfairly remanded in custody while awaiting their matters to be determined in court.

In an interview on I95.5 FM on May 15, former social development minister Verna St Rose Greaves said neither Rowley nor Persad-Bissessar did anything to protect children. She described Rowley as being disconnected, while Persad-Bissessar never did what she was supposed to do. St Rose Greaves also said many of her former PP parliamentary colleagues never read child-welfare-related legislation prepared by her former ministry.